Wednesday, November 28, 2007

NWP at NYC: Day Two

My second day in the City did start with something of a sense of urgency. The hotel somehow didn’t get me my wakeup call, so I overslept by about a half an hour or so. I had to walk about five blocks up to the Javits Center. Before nine. I had missed the Sun Belt first-morning-at-the-conference breakfast; the hotel it was at was in an inconvenient direction. They knew I wasn’t going to be there, so I felt a distinct lack of guilt about it.

About a block or so from the Javits Center I got my first cell phone call asking where I was. I told them and continued. In side the Javits Center it was another long walk to get to the opposite end. The first person I saw wasn’t a Sun Belter, but someone we all know and respect, Sherry Swain of the Mississippi Writing/Thinking Institute. She was talking with several Sun Belters. John, Cathy and Alyson were there, and also Whitney and Susan. Whit looked so happy to be in NYC and superexcited about being at the conference, her first. We made lunch plans then went to our morning sessions. I grabbed me a bagel on the way, so I wouldn’t starve.

I went to one on planning an online presence. As it was a three-hour long workshop, I was hoping for something good. And I was not disappointed. The facilitators started us off writing and discussing with people at our tables. The interaction with other Tech Liaisons (for most of the people there were) was, as always, refreshing. We are in tune and know the challenges the position entails. I am taking back to the group three very important questions. I want to discuss these with the leadership teams and with the site fellows in general. Here are the questions:

How would I describe the identity of Sun Belt?

What stands out most vividly for me about Sun Belt?

What people, places, activities most define Sun Belt?

If any Sun Belters read this, please comment on these. I am eager to know what y’all think.

I have my answers to them, but want to get other perspectives. Maybe I could start a wiki where we could discuss this...

I got to talking with the TL from Winthrop Writing Project out of South Carolina. Brandon was very energetic. He told me a bit about their new teacher initiative and it sounds like that site has it going on. I am hoping to keep in touch with him now that real life has returned.

I met the Sun Belters for lunch. The only place open in the whole of the Javits Center was one pizza fast food place. We were in a food court surrounded by closed fast food places. It was weird. And as the weather was stormy, leaving the Center wasn’t really an option. There were twenty or so people ahead of us on the line. We got on while the getting was good. By the time we finished our lunch and took off, the line stretched for hundreds of people. Poor planning for that part of the conference.

The afternoon session was another three-hour one. This one was ostensibly about planning inservice workshops (on writing and reading) for teachers in all subject areas. Disappointingly, the first presenter talked for over an hour. No interactivity. She had some good ideas, but the sheer length of the presentation wore. The second speaker had multicolored handouts for us to focus on and that was more palatable, but still, almost no interactivity. All in all, I was disappointed.

If you were only interested in the professional portion of the day, you can stop reading here. For the rest of the day, read on.

Then we left. As they searched for a cab, I decided to walk back to my hotel to put up the laptop. I couldn’t see carrying that with me. I hung out in my room a bit and then left to find my friends for drinks before dinner.

I got a call from John that they were at a place called The Social. It was very loud, but they made a halfway decent whiskey sour. We tried to talk for a bit, but it was hard to hear ourselves think, never mind talk. So after John attacked me with a lit candle, spilling white wax on my dark blue shirt, we took off to wander around until it was time for dinner.

We found a little shop that was a mom and pop art place. I looked a lot, but restrained myself. I did buy vicariously. I pointed out a couple of different cards to Whitney, who loved and bought them. I can’t remember the name of the place, but it was pretty cool.
Then dinner. Cathy got us reservations at 44 South West Italian Continental Restaurant. We were joined by Jordan and his boss from JSU. Also Will and Jessica Henry (Jess is a TC from our site) found us and a couple of teachers from Opelika High School who I never really got to meet or talk to, unfortunately. The food was great. The company was better. It was a great time. And the whiskey sour was a little stronger than that at The Social.

Then we broke up, sadly enough, and started to wander back toward the hotels the others were staying at. I wanted to walk around more, and Susie also wanted to walk around. So we broke off from the group and wandered down to Fifth Avenue again. I found out that Susie was also a sci-fi geek. That was cool. Then I got hit over the head by the tired stick and Susie was still busy taking pictures of publishing houses, so we went our separate ways.

I got back to my hotel and slept really well.

Friday, November 16, 2007

NYC for the NWP National Conference

When I got to NYC for the National Writing Project’s national conference, I got sort of a contact high from being in “the City.” I got to my hotel room, after a few minor hiccups caused my lack of attention to detail (Luckily I was not in any hurry and so I never felt like I was rushed. When there is no particular reason to hurry, why do so?). I got to my room and made the calls I needed to make to let people know I was here and safe. Then I had to get out and go walking. My hotel, The Americana Inn, is on 38th Street, just off of The Avenue of the Americas (6th Ave). That put me a few blocks from several NYC landmarks.

I walked toward Rockefeller Center, passing Bryant Park on the way. I had no idea where I was eventually going to wind up, and I didn’t care. I was walking around in NYC at night, and it felt totally safe. I don’t know why that surprises me. I felt safe in all the other big cities the NWP has visited in the past, but I was a little anxious before I got here.

I walked from 38th Street down to 47th and then farther. I passed by the Radio City Music Hall. I looked at the tree (not decorated, still scaffolded) at Rockefeller Center. Looking in, I saw that the ice skating rink there had been set up. Then I got to 5th Avenue and took a left. Soon I was passing by St. Patrick’s Cathedral. It is beautiful. I can’t imagine the amount of skill it took for the stone masons in the early 1800’s to build that.

I kept walking a while and pretty soon ended up at Central Park. Not feeling that I wanted to tempt fate, I didn’t actually enter the park. In fact within a couple of blocks I was turned around and headed back the way I came. By this time I was hungry and tried to spot some sort of a little diner to grab a nosh in. Two burger places I passed were already closed. But I did get to see the mass schedule at St. Patrick’s and decided to get there Sunday morning, if possible. I am not exactly sure when my plane is leaving. But with the first mass at 7:00, I ought to make it.

I passed by the NBC News building. Passed by Fox Noise, as well. Actually, the building doesn’t look evil from the outside. As I was headed back to my room, I saw a TGI Friday’s, and earlier I had passed a Mickey D’s, but I was damned if I was going to travel 1200 miles and somewhere I could at home. So I bought a hot dog, a pretzel, and a bottle of water from a street cart. I felt so New York.

Then it was back to the room, try to calm down and let the adrenaline rush level off. But when CSI: New York came on I was rejazzed. The main crime took place in Times Square, which is about a half mile or so from where I am staying.

I am not getting a wireless connection in the hotel, and I didn’t really expect one. I was annoyed that the phone won’t make outgoing calls without a $50 deposit. And then I’d be charged 85 cents a minute. No way! It took a couple of days, but I am now at a branch of the NY Public Library next to Bryant Park. And it was just a few blocks from my room.

I’ll write updates on my subsequent days soon. It has been packed.

Sunday, October 21, 2007

ACTE Conference 2007

Okay, before I forget too much about it, I would like to write a little about this year’s Alabama Council of Teachers of English conference. I was invited to submit a proposal for a workshop a long time ago and did so. This workshop is titled “Introducing Process Writing Using Legos.” I’ll get to that in a bit.

The day started off with a keynote speech by Carol Jago. She was lively and entertaining, as well as thought provoking. She posited that teachers are often not working in their students’ Zones of Proximal Development (ZPD) as proposed by Vygotsky. She thinks that a lot of teachers (and she did not exclude herself entirely) work in their students’ ZME: Zone of Minimal Effort.

She thinks that too often teachers make the work too easy for the students. She believes we should challenge our students more in the classroom. I have to say, she made some good points in her speech. She shared a lesson with us and got us talking to each other and sharing with each other. It was well done and thought provoking. A little while later I had a chance to meet her and talk to her a little one on one. She was friendly and interesting in person as well. She autographed a copy of her book Cohesive Writing for me. As soon as I finish Writing Brave and Free: Encouraging Words for People Who Want to Start Writing by Ted Kooser and Steve Cox I plan to read it.

The speaker at lunch was Watt Key, author of Alabama Moon. He was an entertaining speaker and kept the crowd of teachers laughing. He didn’t do a reading from his book, saying he always disliked going to readings of other authors (no matter how much he happened to like the author). Instead he told us stories about his time in college and his visit to New York after his book was accepted for publication.

My workshop came up after lunch. I started by defining an old definition of an expert--someone who travels more than 20 miles and provides handouts. It got the hoped for laugh and broke the ice. I then quickly explained the idea behind the activity, passing out bags of 25-30 Legos to groups of students who then build something with them. They also have to write specific instructions for another group to do the same. Then I take pics, the object gets deconstructed, and then another group (in a different class if possible) tries to recreate the original object following the directions.

It doesn’t take long to explain, even with a PowerPoint show of what my students created and what the next group created using the provided instructions. The meat of the workshop was actually breaking the teachers up into pairs (and one group of three due to the odd number) and letting them construct something, write instructions, deconstruct it and swap with another group. They all worked happily away while I wandered around the room and tried to keep out of their way.

I didn’t have my digital camera, as the battery is fried and will not hold a charge. I was a little at a loss until I though of my cell phone. I took pictures of the original objects with it and then emailed the pics to my myself. I was then able to open them up and show them to the group over the LCD projector hooked up to the classroom computer. It worked out pretty well. One of the participants told me that she appreciated the opportunity to actually do the activity. She said that if I had simply told them about it she would not have “gotten it.” But by letting them do it themselves she “got it.” I was pleased. I was also pleased that the extra handouts I had were mainly taken by the participants to share with other teachers at their schools.

I was going to try to go to another session after mine, but due t me heading for the wrong room, and staying there a while, I would have been unfashionably late. I was also a bit fatigued from the drive to Birmingham and the equally long search for a hotel room (apparently the Birmingham hotels were full with fans going to the Alabama/Tennessee football game the next day--serves m e right for not being a football fan). I decided to head for home.

Before I left, Cindy Adams, the president of the ACTE, and my friend, asked if I would like to be a Representative-at-Large for the ACTE, as there was no representation from my part of the state. I agreed. Now I will patiently wait for the other shoe to drop and find out what, exactly, I have signed on for. Whatever it is, I will do it the best I can. I am excited that Cindy is reviving the ACTE. It is a needed organization in the state.

I look forward to the next ACTE conference. I will try to have a new workshop set up for that one.

Thursday, October 18, 2007

Tabloid Headline Poetry

One of the most common complaints that I get from students is that writing is boring. They never have any fun. And my exhortations that what they write can be fun, and if they share that with others they share the fun, often fall on deaf ears. So today I did a "fun" lesson. It comes from "Tabloid Tone Exercise" by Lee Upton, found in The Practice of Poetry edited by Robin Behn and Chase Twichell. It was adapted by my friend and colleague John Pennisi, one of the co-director's of the Sun Belt Writing Project.

The idea as we use it is to take a headline from a tabloid (take your pick from any of the weirder ones), turn it into the title of a poem, and write a poem about it. I ask to treat it seriously, but my own poems almost always tend to come out tongue-in-cheek. Here are the three I wrote today. I do not vouch for their quality, but it did get me writing in the classroom with my students. Always a worthy goal.

LOST DOGGY TRAVELS 1000 MILES TO COME HOME attack the owner who abandonded him!
Revenge of the Yappy Dog

"Taco killed him!" cried his wife
"That little chihuahua took Stan's life!
He told us that Taco had run away last week,
Now he's been killed by that little pipsqueak!"

Who knew that Taco, weighing only four pounds,
Could find his way home and bring his owner down?
The guy tried to ditch him in another state,
Driven crazy by the yap, yap, yapping, early and late.

Taco came home and snuck in through the back,
For once he was silent, waiting to attack.
As his owner passed by, in the middle of the night,
Taco took him down--and it served him right!

Leaving that little yappy dog allalone in the woods,
He should have known it would come to no good.
Now he is dead, hea has paid for his sin,
But Taco's escaped--and may strike again!

©2007-Art Belliveau


They always ask about the beard and the hair.
I don't know why they even care.
"Man, why's your hair in a ponytail?
Don't you know that style is stale?"

After 12 years of Catholic school,
Where short hair was always the rule,
I grew it long, so just back way off!
Least that's how I try to play it off.

But it's not the truth, at least not all,
So now I'll tell the whole truth to y'all.
It happened way back, 25 years ago,
Right before I decided to let it all grow.

I was at the barber's, waiting my turn,
When this one dude's new crew cut started to burn!
All of a sudden his went BOOM!!!
So took off running out of the room.

I'll take no chances, I decided then,
I'll just let it grow and avoid firemen
And the bomb squad--I know it is weird,
But that's why I've got this long hair and this beard.

©2007-Art Belliveau


There are some things, I just don't wanna know.
Some facts that I don't need to learn.
Some places that I just don't wanna go,
For fear that I'll never return.

I do not care how old I get.
Or how many gray hairs I may grow.
I never would try it, no, not on a bet,
I could never win enough dough.

Apparently, though, someone has tried it,
Though I could puke at just the mere thought.
And the change that occured, well, he couldn't hide it.
He left the stall and was caught.

Some things in life just aren't worth it.
Some things I'd rather not be told.
I wish that they never did unearth it,
But, though they did, I would rather grow old!

©2007-Art Belliveau

A Couple of Writing Lessons

Yesterday my classes and I did a little work on specificity with sensory images. I started with a writing assignment I pulled from Room to Write by Bonni Goldberg titled “Seasons.” Here is what they were supposed to have written the day before:

Today pick your favorite season. First, recall a personal moment during the season. Then focus on only the details that evoke that experience. Use texture, smell, and sound if appropriate. Be truer to your response to the moment than to its features. Notice whether you start with specific features and move to general ones, or the other way around.
So today I started by writing Sensory Images on the board and asking the class what the five senses were. Then I listed them and pointed out that in my experience with beginning writers, most of them put about 90% of their details on visual images, and 9% on auditory images. Ninety-nine percent of sensory details coming from 40% of the senses—a little on the overkill side.

Then I wrote Vague Words on the board and under that wrote delicious. I asked if they could figure out why that was a vague word. After a few guesses, some of the classes hit on not everyone likes the same foods. I illustrated the point with my own love of red cabbage, a treat that makes my Southern wife gag. Just saying it had a similar effect on most of the students in the class. I then pointed out that my wife loves collard greens, a food I wouldn’t eat for pay. Where we grew up and what our families considered normal made us grow to have some very different tastes in food (pardon the pun).

I also pointed out that I cannot make myself eat steak sauce. The students inquired as to why and I explained a traumatic childhood event when my father, to teach me a lesson about way overusing the steak sauce one night got a spoon and made me finish all the steak sauce left pooled on my plate. After about three hours at the table it was gone and I never ate steak sauce again.

After putting some other vague words the students love to use, good, pretty, and nice prominent among them, they started to get the idea. So I gave them highlighters and asked them to mark any word or phrase in their papers that was vague. Then they numbered the marks for future use.

I then made another apparent digression into the difference between Revision and Editing. Every class got what editing was right away. Not a single problem in figuring that out. Almost all of them were stumped by revision. We finally got to the point that we agreed it had to do with content, and that it involved organization, adding in details and deleting irrelevant details.

I told them to look at the highlighted words on their papers and then, either on the back or on a new sheet to write the number one. Then look at the vague term and try to come up with something more specific. I briefly explained clustering to get ideas rolling, and let them loose for a while. Now I can look forward to reading them and seeing what they think is vague. And I’ll add a different highlight of what I find to be vague. Should be fun.

They also had another writing assignment from Room to Write: “Stranger Than Fiction.” The idea here was to write about a recent story in the news. For this I did the first part of the “To Be or Not to Be” assignment I picked up at an idea swap at NCTE a long time ago. The original lesson was donated to the swap by Dr. Tracey Johnson of Clarion University.

The idea here is for the students to write a page or so and then swap it with another student who highlights all the “to be” verbs (be, being, been, is, are, was, were, am, the apostrophe m in I’m, and any apostrophe s that means is). Then I break from the original plan to talk to my students about Klingons. Yes, I am ubergeek enough to use Star Trek and Star Wars references in my classes.

Apparently the writers who originated the Klingon language for Star Trek had decided that the language would have no “to be” verbs in it as Klingons would define themselves by their actions. Ironically, the first thing they were asked to translate was Hamlet’s soliloquy. I am not sure how they did it, I didn’t hear that part of the story, but my best guess would be something like, “To live or to die—This I ask!”

This sets the stage for my students to revise their papers, changing the words without altering the basic message. They need to rewrite all the sentences with “to be” verbs in them so those verbs are eliminated from their papers.

I haven’t checked them yet, but I do have some high hopes.

Okay, ‘nuff said for today. More than enough. But after so long a silence, can I be blamed for my logorrhea?

Friday, September 21, 2007

Testing Follies

A lot of people want to know what the problem with testing students is. After all, if teachers have done their jobs, the thinking goes, the students should be able to pass the test. While I do not necessarily see the correlation there, let’s proceed for a moment as if it were true. Then in order to pass the tests, the students would need a chance to learn the materials and the teachers a chance to teach them. Testing actually decreases the amount of time students have to learn and teachers have to teach.

We are undergoing the trials and tribulations of Alabama High School Graduation Exam (AHSGE) testing this week. The first thing we need in order to give the test is a place for the students to do so. An entire wing of our school, around nine classrooms, and the school library are being used for testing. This means that the teachers and classes that would usually meet in those classrooms cannot do so. It also means that for the week the library is closed most of the day. No research can get done there, no books checked out, no references referred to.

All of these classes are meeting in the cafeteria. ALL OF THE CLASSES. I can see why the open classroom plans of the 60’s and 70’s didn’t work out too well. I wasn’t informed my classroom would be needed until last Thursday afternoon, when I was informed via a call on my PA, which interrupted my teaching, that I would need to cover up all my posters or take them down as my room would be used for testing on Monday. That was news to me. In the memo we were emailed several days earlier, my room was not listed as one that would be used. Although I had expected it to be. Apparently my feelings of relief were premature.

I was never officially informed where I was to meet with the class that would be out of the room during testing. As I have first block planning, I was only dispossessed for one class period. Most of the other teachers in that wing are out for two periods. And I found out via an emailed memo that I would be covering another teacher’s class during my planning block on Monday. So much for having time to prepare a lesson or two to teach to my learners.

As added fun, the schedule Monday was further intruded upon as the testing in the classrooms ran late. As third block is the lunch period, holding classes in the cafeteria is not an option. So, all the teachers in that wing, and our students) sat outside the doors to the wing as the teachers in there got there students to the extended testing site. See, there is no time limit on the AHSGE. If the students want or need to work on it for six hours that is allowed.

So, how much time was lost from teaching this week? How many students didn’t learn as much as they could have if they were in a classroom? How many student hours were lost this week because testing is a state mandate and we do not have a choice about it?

When we have testing for the whole of the tenth grade, and all the eleventh and twelfth graders who need to retake it, in the spring, over half the school does not even arrive until third block. So many rooms are required, and so many teachers to administer and proctor the tests, that we can’t have school for the first two blocks each day for a week. How much time is lost from teaching and learning there?

Then there are the remediation classes. These are often test prep classes that students who fail part of the exam are required to take in place of other classes. So they go over and over the same material again and again until they can pass the test. But they lose out on other educational opportunities.

From what I am told by my wife, who teaches high school “across the river” in Georgia, it is much the same there. The details of what exactly is required and what tests and courses must be passed differ, but the overall picture is much the same--massive amounts of teaching/learning time wasted in the name of testing.

Has anyone else reading this noticed the same trend? Or am I seeing something that isn't there?

Friday, September 7, 2007


[For this post to make sense, you should read the previous post first. Sorry if that is a "duh."]

I got a strange idea and so went to one of the too few student computers in my class. I turned it on and, as I had hoped, the lack of updating the computers does not affect their ability to sign on to the Internet! So I can let my kiddies use the computers in the class. Somehow. If I can figure out how to get 30 kids onto 20 computers...

I have it!

They will have to take turns! And if they whine too much about that, they can just go ahead and write on paper!

Somehow I am feeling a little better about my upcoming teaching.

Thursday, September 6, 2007

“And Then, Depression Set In...”

The title, of course, is tongue-in-cheek, taken from that classic movie Stripes. But it is near to being true for me at this point. Okay, okay… so I am not so much depressed as a bit on the stressed-out side.

For the past month or so, I have been following various threads on a listserv I belong to (engteach-talk, you can join it at From about the last week of July to the present various members of the list have been checking on with their beginning of the year stories. I am in a strange position, as I have been for the past few years. My school system’s calendar starts 2 August for teachers and 9 August for students. However, I am not going to start with my students until this Friday, 7 September. Until such time as I am actively in my classroom I get to fill in as a sub whenever and wherever needed and this year I got to spend a delightful couple of weeks correcting and updating student information in STI (the software my school uses for student management).

When I changed to this school system it was to specifically teach a writing course to help prepare students for the state writing assessment. Every semester I split my students with a drivers’ education teacher. For the first four weeks the students are in class with that teacher, learning all they can about driving and safety. Then they get me for the remainder of the semester teaching them writing. Well, most of them.

Approximately three at a time they are pulled out of my class for six days to go out and do the driving portion of their coursework. That means at any one time about 10% of my students are not in class. That, of course, does not count the ones who miss for other reasons (absent, inschool suspension, out of school suspension, field trips, skipping...). To add even more to the fun, my first year at the school I floated. I was in a total of six different classrooms during the year (three the first semester and three different ones the second semester).

Also, that first year, the students were less than friendly for various reasons. Mainly the drivers’ ed class had previously been paired with a study hall and so they felt cheated that someone expected them to do real work. And then there is walking into the classroom after all the relations in the class have already formed. The group dynamics have mainly been sorted out, and there has been a connection with the teacher who is now out driving with them. Then I walk in and everything changes.

Last year I was given a classroom. Still have it this year. In the classroom are twenty computers. Took me a while to figure out how I wanted to use them, but in the second semester the classes really started to cook. I was in a good place mentally.

But... the assistant principal who worked most closely with me on this class is not here this year. He has been deployed to Iraq. The other assistant principal I worked with left to become a principal at another school. The new assistant principals are good people, but they do not have the interest in this class the previous two did.

So my classes, which should be capped at about 25 (as they are technically "test prep" even though we do more than that) all have 27-32 students. This is interesting as I have 25 desks and 20 computer stations. I usually only have tenth graders and returning ninth graders (who may get the required credits to be tenth graders in time to take the writing exam). This year I have eight juniors and one senior. They are not going to take the test. But they will be in the classes where I am trying to prepare others for the test. Luckily, in my experience juniors and seniors (especially seniors) do well in my class.

The computers I made such good use of second semester last year are all basically useless at the moment. The district upgraded the network to the point where Windows98 computers are no longer compatible with it. All mine are Windows98 and no one has come to upgrade them yet, even though there was a work order placed before school started. And, as I mentioned, I have a lot fewer computers than students this time around. There are some computers that are not being used, but for some unexplained reason they cannot be moved from the empty room where they are not being used to my room where that can be used (as soon as they get upgraded as well).

To be honest, I am not sure whether to post this or not. It seems like one giant complaint. But I think I can get to a deeper point.

I am willing to be held accountable for my teaching. But how accountable can I be when I am blocked from using the method I have come to see as the best one for my students and me? And it is not even blocked maliciously. No one set out to work me over. But I seem to be getting worked over from several different directions at once. Sort of the perfect storm of bureaucratic screwups that centered on me and my classes.

Friday, August 24, 2007

Movie Review

Over the summer I took a class on technology and writing at Auburn University. One of the assignments was to create a wiki with several of the other students in the class. My group decided on a movie review wiki. Here is one of my reviews

Review of the movie Freedom Writers (IMDB).

Hillary Swank plays Erin Gruwell, a teacher who chose to work at Woodrow Wilson High School, a minority school. Set in 1994, just two years after the LA riots, Gruwell takes a class of mainly minority students and inspires them to excel beyond anyone’s expectations. Along the way Gruwell has to fight those higher up than she in the school and school district. She pours so much of herself and her time into her teaching that she loses her husband (Patrick Dempsey). She works two extra jobs to have the money to provide her students with the books and extras she believes they need.

I watched this movie fully prepared to hate it. As a genre I dislike films about teachers. Being one myself I see all the inconsistencies. As in all teacher movies, the teacher apparently has one class. I know that isn’t the case, most people in the audience know it isn’t the case, but for narrative purposes the film must focus on the relationship between the teacher and one class. Unfortunately this has the effect of setting up unconscious expectations in the audience. If she just has that one class, what exactly is her problem? These movies need to let the audiences see the overload teachers often work under.

Also, as in many (if not most) films about teachers, there is the subtext of white teacher goes to minority school and inspires the kids to work miracles. Apparently, after she had the students do one particular exercise where they had to go to a line in the middle of the room and she passed out the journals there were no more discipline problems in her classes. That is unrealistic. I can see the problems would be reduced, but not entirely eliminated.

Also there is the subtext of teacher as martyr. Gruwell works extra jobs, sacrifices her marriage, and becomes extremely unpopular with the other teachers. Again, this is a common theme in movies about teachers. While I believe that what Gruwell did was heroic, I do not believe that is what it takes to be a good teacher. Why are teachers expected to spend their own money and sacrifice their personal lives if they want to make a difference? Why not just have the school system provide the necessary materials so that level of sacrifice isn’t warranted.

I would also like to say a few words about the other teachers in the movie. Department Head Margaret Campbell (Imelda Staunton) was given the role of villain. As was English teacher Brian Gelford (John Benjamin Hickey). I have a harder time demonizing these teachers. True they were not open, true they were obstructions, but they had both been there a long time. They had seen the school they started in change virtually overnight when the voluntary integration started. I am willing to bet they had precious little to say about that or training in how to deal with the new students they received. Although they were wrong in many particulars, I can’t see them as the bad guys, but only as other people who had been ripped up by the system and were just trying to survive.

Overall, even with the flaws, it was a heart-tugger. And knowing it is based on a true story makes it even more interesting. Gruwell left the school when her classes did. She moved on to teach college. I don’t say this as an insult or slam, but to point out there is a reason that teachers cannot pour so much of themselves into their work. It leads to burn out. Maybe some type of happy medium between martyr and uncaring teacher (the only two types portrayed in the movie) might be the best road to travel.

Erin Gruwell comments on the movie. From YouTube.

I'm Back

It has been way too long since I posted here. I could think of numerous excuses, but I won’t. I got a little lazy and then a little perfectionistic. I have found that if I put off writing something until I am certain it is going to be outstanding, I often do not have to write anything at all. I mean, why bother if it isn’t going to be great?

Oddly enough this is an excuse I have heard not just from myself, but from countless students over the last twenty years. I have rarely let them get away with this excuse. After all, writing is supposed be an exploration of the mind and an alternate definition for essay is to try. So I will essay to write something in here today, and I will not worry over it’s certain lack of perfection.

School started for me on 2 August. For the students at my school it started on 9 August. Five days of preplanning and, at least on paper, almost all of it taken up with meetings and workshops. While I do see a great deal of value in attending a good workshop, and we had several, I also see a positive value in free time being given for teachers to work on getting their classrooms ready and being able to sit down and do some preplanning for their teaching. Doesn’t seem like working that into the official schedule should be too tough, but it often is.

At my wife’s school (she is also a teacher), their preplanning week was similarly organized. The new, new principal did let all the teachers know that the school would be open until 9:00 every night and open certain hours on the weekend. Basically he expected that the teachers would volunteer their own time with their families to come and do the necessary work that his own schedule for preplanning did not permit them. Is it me, or does that seem wrong?

I have often confronted that attitude, though. The attitude that teachers should be willing--no, eager--to give up their own free time in order to spend more time at their job. And God forbid we ever complain about it. Then we are met with the “accusation” that we are only teaching for the money. Yeah, that’s right, I got into teaching in order to make my fortune. Somehow I feel I was misinformed.

Whenever I hear this, that teachers only work for the money, I always want to ask the person saying that why they go to work. After all, in our increasingly materialistic society, how much one is paid is a sign as to how important our society views that particular job. I find it distressing that such necessary jobs as police, firefighters, and teachers are not paid commensurate to the importance of our jobs. Somehow we are all expected to be grateful to have the opportunity to do this work and not complain about how more money would be nice.

I love teaching. I love being a teacher. I do not love that there always seems to be quite a bit of month left at the end of my money.

On the other hand, I knew going into this profession I would be on the low end of the professional pay scale. I have two degrees, several awards, and twenty years of experience. I make less that what corporate lawyers make their first year out of school. And yet I am expected to work as hard and give of my extra time as much as they do, if not more.

So why do I continue to do it? It is not entirely for the students. It is not entirely for the money. It is not entirely for the feeling of social usefulness I get doing this job. It is not entirely because I get to exercise my creativity on an almost daily basis. It is a combination of all these factors. The proportions differ from day to day, sometimes from class to class, but these are all component reasons to why I still do this.

And as long as I feel I can make a positive difference, make enough to live somewhat comfortably, feel useful, and creative--in whatever proportions come my way--I will continue to do this job. Even if I don’t always enter the door each morning with a bounce and a smile. I’m here and I am going to do my best. That’s about as good as it is going to get for me. And I just have to hope that that is good enough.

Thursday, July 12, 2007

Sun Belt Summer 2007

Since 1989 I have been a member of the Sun Belt Writing Project which is based at Auburn University in Alabama. I still remember my first summer institute. It was the summer after my second year of teaching and I was desperately looking for some way to become a better teacher. My first two years didn’t go well.

That summer I was introduced to the (then) new ideas of Nancie Atwell in her book In the Middle. I devoured Clearing the Way by Tom Romano, a book that showed me many practical applications of Atwell’s ideas. A book that is still relevant today. I was entranced by the simple advice of Natalie Goldberg to just write in Writing Down the Bones. This is another book that is a must read even still today.

I went back to my classroom and was determined to go with the workshop approach 100%. It was my tenure year, but I really didn’t care. That wasn’t bravery or zeal, I was young and figured if I lost that job I could always find another one. In fact, it might have been a motivator for me to move and go somewhere else.

We had new textbooks that year, replacing the books I had been furnished the first two (those books had been titled Modern English In Action—or was it--more aptly--Inaction?). I assigned the new books to my students. Had them write their names in them, in ink, as I was instructed to do. I then collected the books, put them in my closet and left them there the rest of the year. I had a 100% turn-in rate for books that year, not a single one was lost.

I was very lucky to work under a principal who trusted what I was doing and was strong enough in my district that I got tenure. He let me try the new method. All he wanted was for me to explain it to him so that he could explain it to the parents who called him with questions. Ah, the good old days.

I went back in 1991 as a senior fellow at my site. Basically, I wanted to hang around and they let me. I did it again in 1993 and 1995. I think I worked with the site again in 1997 or 1998, but I am a little hazy there. In 1999 I helped to keep the site alive when it hit a really low ebb. I have been there ever since. Somewhere along the way I started getting paid to do so. Now I am the Technical Liaison for my project. It means I like the techie stuff. Like blogs.

Some people, like my lovely wife, wonder why I do this every summer. Why do I make the drive to Auburn every day for four weeks (it was five until this year)? It is 40-45 minutes each way. And there is a time change involved, also. So I never really get to be on an even keel for the whole time I’m there.

I do it because it is a way for me to keep up with what is going on in the current research on writing and reading instruction. I do it because it is an opportunity to write. I do it because I have good friends there, the kind of friends that are more like family to me. And every summer I get to meet 10-15 incredible teachers. And this summer was no exception.

The amount of talent in the room was unbelievable. The conversations were zany at times and always interesting and informative. The teaching demonstrations were outstanding. The level of caring and commitment was off the charts. These people were the cream of the crop. And I am proud that I got to work with them and learn from them this summer.

But now it is over and the post-Sun Belt blues are kicking in. Tomorrow I will go and finish cleaning out the room. Then there is the report for the year. And then nothing.

As I live in a different city than almost all the participants of Sun Belt, I am now pretty much going to be cut off from all these wonderful people.

At least I am now in a school where I don’t have to be the lone stranger in the English department. In my old school no one ever wanted to go spend a summer at Sun Belt. Well, one person, but she went to a different school after her Sun Belt summer. Where I teach now there are several Sun Belt TC’s (Teacher Consultants). It makes the day a little less lonely.

But the TC’s from this summer are pretty much all Auburn folks. Except for one lady from Prattville and another from Guntersville. For those of you not familiar with Alabama geography, those places are a long way off from here. And I am back in Phenix City.

To any of the TC’s who may read this. Thanks for the great summer. I appreciate all the hard work you put in. And I really appreciate all the new ideas I get to take back to my classroom this year. Mostly I appreciate the warmth and good humor you all shared with me this summer. I hope that you all have your best year ever this year and every year after that, as well.

Monday, July 9, 2007

Book Review: The Garden at Night

The Garden at Night: Burnout & Breakdown in the Teaching Life by Mary Rose O’Reilley

This book takes a look at the spiritual side of burnout and breakdown. As her experience is as a college teacher, this is where O’Reilley focuses her essays, but there are applicable lessons for teachers of all levels.

One of the strongest lessons is that everyone undergoes a “dark night of the soul.” It is not unusual, nor should it be unanticipated. Not that these facts make it any easier to endure, as she herself acknowledges. She does advise that we look for the lesson in these situations, to see what we can learn from them. And that, sometimes, that lesson is that it is time to find a different profession.

O’Reilley also emphasizes the need for teachers to take time to meditate or pray daily. She discusses the spiritual traditions of Christianity and Zen Buddhism. These are not mutually exclusive. Both ask that practitioners take that time out of their lives to focus on something besides the problems constantly besieging them. The importance of taking time for one’s self is an important part, perhaps the most important part, of avoiding a burnout—or at least putting it off.

This is an extremely interesting book that takes a look at burnout from a different perspective than others I have read. The practical applications are from a different direction. The philosophical stance is accessible and attainable. This is one I will need to reread to gain the full impact of, but it has already broadened my thinking on the topic of burnout.

Wednesday, July 4, 2007

Thoughts on the Fourth

I know that this is going to sound a little weird, initially, as an Independence Day post, but I want to write a little today about a subject left out of the misnamed No Child Left Behind law that I feel is appropriately addressed on this day.

Independence Day is a celebration of our American ideals. The ideals that our country was founded on. As they are ideals, they are not always reached. Sometimes as a people we fall short. But, as we are all only human, it isn’t surprising. What is surprising is that after 231 years, we still, as a people, aspire to reach to these ideals. I am incredibly proud of that.

But what, you may rightly ask, has this got to do with NCLB?

Perhaps I am a little conspiracy-minded at times, but I am puzzled as to one subject that is quietly left out of NCLB. We all know it calls for math and reading tests. I will leave the questionable efficacy of this excessive testing for another post. I will leave the questionable methods advocated by many on the right for teaching reading to another post, as well. Math and reading were the initial subjects targeted by this law. Next science was to be added to the mix. And these three subjects would be what those who wrote the law wanted to see improved.

What’s missing? Social studies. The study of history. The study of government. Why would this subject be ignored by the law? Why would the study of our country’s history not be something that the people who wrote this law feel important enough to add to it? Why would they leave out the study of how are laws are made and how our government is supposed to work? After all, they say that they are testing for essential knowledge. Isn’t the knowledge of how our country is supposed to work essential?

I am seriously worried that schools will only emphasize subjects that are likely to get them the Holy Grail of Annual Yearly Progress. That the schools will emphasize test taking skills instead of independent thinking. That the subject that can enable our children to see themselves as a part of the decision-making process of our local, state, and national policies will be left to the wayside as it is not part of AYP.

I am worried our students will be left dependent on others to explain to them how the government works and be left with little choice but to take that other’s interpretation as truth. For they will not have had the opportunity to learn the truth for themselves. Maybe that other will be honest and have our kids’ best interests at heart.

Knowing, human nature, is it worth taking that kind of chance?

Please do not go away from this post with the misapprehension that I feel putting social studies into the law would bo an appropriate way to fix this. I think this law needs to be completely rewritten to address many problems. I just find it funny how the one subject left to pushed to the side is the one that would best help the students understand how laws are made and what government is about.

This law is currently up for reauthorization. I think, especially on this day, that it is incumbent upon us as citizens to demand our legislators craft a better law. One that gives our kids a better chance of taking part in the great debates that should be shaping our country’s future. One that does not make them dependent upon others to explain how our government works and that the power of that government derives from them.

Happy Independence Day.

Wednesday, June 27, 2007


The view from room 125 is at once limited and limitless. It is a basement room with no external windows to see what is going on outside. Simultaneously, it is filled with Windows-based computers, hooked up to the Internet, that allow us to see the entire world.

I have decided to start this blog because, after twenty years of teaching, I have some things I'd like to say and opinions I'd like to express. In this blog I will try to restrict myself to matters of education. The caveat to that is that education is part of the wider world, and so at times I will discuss matters that have only a tangential relationship to my main topic.

I started teaching in 1987 in a small, rural school in Russell County, AL. I taught seventh and eighth grades for my first 18 years. I also spent a few years as an adjunct English instructor at a local community college (1998-2005). For the last couple of years I have been teaching writing, mainly, to tenth graders, mainly. It has been interesting always, if not always enjoyable. But I think I turned a corner the last semester of last year. I am hopeful that it is the second wind that will give me enough energy to keep doing this for several more years at least.

I am also a fellow of the Sun Belt Writing Project, based at Auburn University, in Alabama. I did my first invitational summer institute in 1989 and they haven't been able to get rid of me since then. For the last several years I have been the technical liaison for our project. If you teach, especially (but not solely) language arts, I suggest you find a writing project in your area. There are over a hundred in spread out around the country. It can be a life-altering experience. Does that sound dramatic? Maybe so, but it doesn't make it any less true.

I am looking forward to writing this blog. I am an opinionated kind of guy, and it will be nice to have my own private little soapbox to be shouting into the void of the world wide web. Maybe some of what I write could even be illuminating--to myself if to no one else.

I am going to attempt to write in here at least once a week. I say attempt because once school gets going again, who knows where the time to do so will come from. Most likely it will come from the time I should allow for sleep.

Time to wrap this up for the moment. I look forward to expounding on the world as I see it.